A Very American Coup: Hey brother, Can You Spare a Democracy?
They used to tell me I was building a dream, and so I followed the mob,
When there was earth to plow, or guns to bear, I was always there right on the job.
They used to tell me I was building a dream, with peace and glory ahead,
Why should I be standing in line, just waiting for bread?
—“Brother, can you spare a dime?” E. Y. Harburg and Jay Gorney, 1931
In the summer of 1933, General Smedley Butler (ret) sat in the otherwise empty dining room of the Bellevue-Stratford in Philly and tried not to let his jaw drop on the tablecloth. Gerald MacGuire sat across from him and spoke quietly about what it was that JP Morgan and Irénée DuPont wanted the General to do.
They wanted him to lead an army of veterans against the government of the United States. They wanted FDR and his New Deals gone and they had the money and the influence to do it. They would force the President to appoint Butler Secretary of General Affairs and “persuade” Roosevelt to take a back seat to their agenda. “You’ll see,” said MacGuire. “They’re organizing things right now.”
And lo and behold, a few weeks later, the press announced the creation of an influential but secretive group called the American Liberty League. Most of the money came from Irénée DuPont. Most of the influence came from JP Morgan, J Howard Pew, President of the Sun Oil Company, and Alfred P Sloan, head of General Motors.
General Butler was no great fan of government either. But he was a patriot. And when the Congressional Committee on Nazi Propaganda and Un-American Activities formed in the fall of 1934, he told them about his meetings with MacGuire.
The Committee gathered enough circumstantial evidence to believe his story. However, FDR apparently decided he didn’t want to prosecute members of the Liberty League (there probably wasn’t enough evidence to do so anyway). But he fought the election of 1936 with words like these:
“The privileged princes of these new economic dynasties, thirsting for power, reached out for control over government itself. They created a new despotism and wrapped it in the robes of legal sanction.”
“These economic royalists complain that we seek to overthrow the institutions of America. What they really complain of is that we seek to take away their power.”
Roosevelt won that election in a landslide and carried Democrats into Congress on his coattails.
In the summer of 1971, Lewis Powell looked around and saw that American capitalism was under attack. Protests against government and corporations and the Vietnam War were escalating. In the shadow of Silent Spring, tough new environmental regulations were becoming law.
Among other things, Powell was a lawyer for the cigarette industry. He thought he knew what needed to be done, so he sat down and wrote a memo for a strategy session of the US Chamber of Commerce. It was a battle plan for big business. “Strength lies in organization, in careful long-range planning and implementation, in consistency of action over an indefinite period of years,” he wrote. Key to his plan was an activist Supreme Court that would help shape political change in favour of corporate America.
Six months later, President Nixon nominated Powell to the Supreme Court. While there, Powell opened the door and set the table for corporations, as “persons” and, in 2010, for the Court’s decision in Citizens United vs Federal Election Commission.
In Citizens United, the Supreme Court re-imagined corporations as “disadvantaged persons” who should not be denied freedom of speech just because they were corporations.
The heirs of the American Liberty League threw open their vaults to the Republicans. The resulting assault on the President, in its magnitude and diversity, is one of shock and awe.
At their semi-annual semi-secret strategy session in January 2011, the Koch Brothers anted-up some $60 million for the cause. By the time the Presidential election is over, conservative Super PACs will have spent some $1 billion.
Well-funded Republicans have fought filibuster battles against every bill, every routine motion favoured by the President until Congress has become gridlocked and impotent.
Wall Street has spent $4.2 billion since 2006 fighting attempts to regulate their activities.
ALEC, the stealthy, corporate-backed American Legislative Exchange Council is like a fifth column in state legislatures. For example, ALEC has written boiler-plate legislation (now law in a dozen states) to require certain kinds of photo-ID at polling stations or to alter the dayse voting can take place—all in the name of voter fraud that doesn’t exist. The effect is to suppress the vote of those who traditionally vote Democrat—blacks, Hispanics and students.
Tea Party conservatives are their ground troops—sad sacks conned by calls to arms to defend Liberty and the Constitution. Americans for Prosperity, founded by the Koch Brothers, is helping them get out their vote.
JP Morgan, David Koch, WalMart, Goldman Sachs, BP and Chevron recently unleashed a misleading attack ad falsely accusing Obama of adding to the national debt.
Let Tommy Douglas, whom some people think is Canada’s greatest Canadian, instruct us further:
“Once more let me remind you what fascism is. It need not wear a brown shirt or a green shirt—it may even wear a dress shirt. Fascism begins the moment a ruling class, fearing the people may use their political democracy to gain economic democracy, begins to destroy political democracy in order to retain its power of exploitation and special privilege.”
What’s going on in America right now is a coup by any other name. It’s time President Obama took a page or two from the counter-insurgency tactics of President Roosevelt.